Kathryn Bigelow's rapid response to the death of Osama Bin Laden is a taut and morally ambiguous procedural for the ages.
On 1 May, 2011, America finally got its bogeyman. When Kathryn Bigelow heard the news, she was ready to shoot Bin Laden herself, primed for a film on Osama’s escape from the battle of Tora Bora. Zero Dark Thirty is her rapid response.
Like The Hurt Locker, her film is case-hardened, sharp and unsentimental, resistant to the heat of payback and with its eye on the journey, not the destination. Question is, released a year-and-a-half after Bin Laden’s death, can audiences handle the truth? More to the point, can Bigelow?
Spanning 10 years, three continents and two presidencies, the hunt for Bin Laden was a matrix of frustration, as scrambled as the 9/11 messages that open the movie. Writer Mark Boal’s tenacious research has, nonetheless, pulled something from the data-stream: the story of Maya, a female CIA analyst whose 12 years at the agency were lasersighted solely on nailing Bin Laden. The film’s assertion that the world’s most wanted terrorist was caught by an agent with a hunch is as unlikely as it is compelling and serves as an invaluable dramatic 'in', if not an emotional one.
No surname, backstory or even any downtime, Jessica Chastain’s iron-willed Maya is another of Bigelow’s career obsessives whose grim infatuation is rewarded with bitter victory, first over Al-Qaeda, then her own macho associates – "I’m the motherfucker that found him!" she yells during an agency pow-wow, in a Brockovich-like outburst destined for YouTube parody.
Compiled from first-hand accounts and designed as docudrama, Zero Dark Thirty makes a big deal of its veracity, but it’s essentially obedient to genre. Driven by Maya’s professional mania, the film assumes the shape of a steely serial-killer procedural, with its dead ends and red herrings, its evidence walls and fanatical protagonist. Punctuated by dramatic reconstructions of real events (including 7/7), the film dredges up the twitchy dread of the Terror Years.
The influence of Fincher’s Zodiac, another tale of manic obsession, looms large, as does Olivier Assayas’ masterful miniseries Carlos (the casting of Edgar Ramirez feels like an act of pure homage). Perhaps Bigelow’s shrewdest move is resisting the temptation to deepen the shadows, suck out the light, kill the colour and make it 'dark'.
Yet Grieg Fraser’s photography is crystal-clear and clear-eyed – the style is a statement. These are the facts, it says – unblinking, nothing to hide, the backroom manipulations of the Bush-era exposed and indicted in broad daylight. Waterboarding may have got results, but Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes smack of authentic shame.
It’s only in the final act that Bigelow succumbs to her Hollywood impulses and that title lives up to its PlayStation shooter connotations. Blond, buff and bearded, SEAL Team Six have been Chuck Norris-ed by wardrobe and Point Blanked by Bigelow.
The moment their stealth choppers scoop through the Sarban Hills, guided by the CIA in their NASA-style command base, the film switches genres and Bigelow starts talking action slang – they could be off on an Alien bughunt. Breach by breach, breath by breath, the real-time assault unfolds in illicit night-vision, its outcome assured but staged, nonetheless, with prickling suspense.
The Big Moment happens in a flash. No lingering money shot. Osama, a phantom figure throughout, dies as he lived: in the shadows. Times Square won’t be cheering, but the gung-ho glamour has the smell of victory. If that’s the way Hollywood does catharsis, so be it, but there’s a far better movie before it.
This is Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker helmer, on a hand-held hunt for Bin Laden.
Compelling, clear-eyed, no clichés and no crowd-pleasing either.
It haunts and lingers long after the lights go up.